Election 2016: How 2016 Could End Differently from 1992 (Part 1)
The opening question at the first Republican presidential debate asked whether any of the candidates, if not chosen as the party’s nominee, would choose to run as an independent. In any other year that question would seem a bit odd; after all these were all men seeking to be the standard bearer of their political party, a party to which many of them had dedicated their career toward advancing.
But this time it was very appropriate. That’s because this time Donald Trump was on the stage.
Trump alone raised his hand (unsurprisingly) and refused to back down, even when booed by the audience. He claimed that his refusal to rule out a third-party run was in order to retain “leverage” with the GOP establishment and to guarantee fair treatment by them in the race. He also added the caveat that he would “need to respect” the nominee if he was going to support them.
For now, Trump remains at the top of the heap among GOP voters, and has actually developed a commanding lead in Iowa and New Hampshire, the first two states to vote in the nominating season. So it may seem a tad premature to be discussing what Trump will be doing when he loses.
However, in spite of genuinely hitting a chord with many voters disenchanted with “politics as usual” in America, Trump probably has a ceiling of support among Republicans. In the end, one of the other less polarizing candidates, be they a conservative like Ted Cruz or a moderate like Jeb Bush, will most likely win the nomination. The really interesting question, then, is what will Trump do after that?
A man of Trump’s cyclopean ego is always loath to accept defeat or, in Trump’s parlance, be declared a “loser”. Defeated in the Republican primary, Trump might well choose to peddle his wares to the electorate directly.
The idea of Trump leading a third-party candidacy is already giving GOP strategists night terrors. They fear that he will bleed away enough support to sink the Republican candidate, especially when confronted by a formidable presumptive Democratic opponent in the form of Hillary Clinton. Strategists on both sides expect a very close-run fight, but Trump’s entry would, so the prevailing logic goes, throw the election to the Democrats in a landslide.
That logic goes back to 1992, when Ross Perot ran on his Reform Party ticket. Running as an anti-politics candidate with a business background. Perot managed to get access to the debates with the main party candidates and even led the polls at one stage. In the end nearly 20 million voters opted to cast their ballots for Perot, giving him 19% of the vote. Bill Clinton won, defeating incumbent President George H.W. Bush and claiming the White House for the Democrats.
The result of 1992, according to many, was the product of Perot siphoning off marginal voters from Bush and thus handing the election to the Democrats. Many fear that Donald Trump running in a similar fashion would produce the very same result. It is certainly true that Trump’s anti-establishment rhetoric and business background echo Perot’s.
But is “1992 all over again” the inevitable result of a Trump run? Would he be nothing more than a spoiler?
(Stay tuned for Part 2 later this week)